Late-round picks catch on at WR

Houston Texans star Andre Johnson, the leading receiver in the NFL in 2006 with 103 catches, is a former first-round draft choice and a two-time Pro Bowl performer and generally is regarded around the league as one of its emerging young stars.

The runner-up to Johnson last season with 98 catches, Mike Furrey of Detroit, was an undrafted free agent in 2000. He played in the short-lived XFL and the Arena Football League before making an NFL roster, was a safety for the St. Louis Rams before moving to wide receiver full time and had more tackles (59) than catches (21) entering the 2006 campaign.

Yet Furrey, a self-described "slow, possession-type white guy" of modest athletic capabilities, had only five fewer receptions than Johnson, registered the same average yards per catch and scored one more touchdown than his more-talented counterpart.

Given their similar accomplishments, Furrey and Johnson represent the difficult decision franchises face in the opening round of the draft every spring. And that conundrum -- whether to invest a first-round choice on a wide receiver or trust that a serviceable pass catcher will be available in a later round, as they typically are in every lottery -- is probably even more profound this year because of the presence of Calvin Johnson.

The Georgia Tech star, who did nothing to diminish his brilliant reputation when he auditioned for NFL coaches and scouts last week on campus, is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the draft pool.

"Far and away the best player, the safest pick, a guy you can take and probably have no [qualms] about him on or off the field," said the college scouting director for a team with a choice in the top 10 on April 28.

Yet that doesn't mean Johnson will be the first name called by commissioner Roger Goodell when he steps to the podium to commence the proceedings.

There are, of course, individual team needs that will dictate which players are picked early. And there is, in the case of the wide receiver position, a history that suggests that pass-catchers don't necessarily merit top-10 consideration.

Who's to say, for instance, that Micah Johnson of Division I-AA South Dakota State, a wide receiver with impressive college statistics and projected as a possible midround pick, won't have a more immediate impact in the NFL than Calvin Johnson? Or that Lance Johnson from Catawba, a Division II school, won't be a star at the NFL level. After all, it has happened before at wide receiver.

OK, so the thought that any prospect at any position might make a bigger splash in the NFL as a rookie than the incomparable Calvin Johnson is probably preposterous. But as good as Johnson is -- and his performances in three seasons for the Yellow Jackets, in the on-field testing at the combine workouts in Indianapolis last month and at the Georgia Tech pro day last week are mind-boggling -- he still doesn't come with an iron-clad guarantee.

It is a game that has evolved at some positions, and wide receiver clearly is one of them, to the point that systems can make a player. As is the case with Furrey, who flourished in a Mike Martz-designed offense but who many scouts and coaches insist would struggle in some other system, scheme sometimes is enough to trump skills. And recent history offers a pretty good indication that wide receivers don't have to be first-rounders to be first-rate.

"There are a lot of great wide receivers taken [in the first round]. But you look around the league, and you see it's not a must. I wasn't a first-round pick … and I've done pretty well for myself," said Carolina Panthers star Steve Smith, a third-round selection in the 2001 draft but arguably the NFL's most explosive wide receiver.

That said, success of wide receivers chosen outside the first round hasn't slowed the NFL fixation on tabbing pass catchers in the opening stanza of the draft. In the past 10 years, there have been 41 wide receivers picked in the first round. Only in 2006, when Santonio Holmes of the Steelers was the lone wide receiver to go off the board in the opening round, were there fewer than three.

The first-round results, however, certainly have been mixed.

For the purpose of assessing the recent first-rounders, let's eliminate those selected in the past three years because their body of work is not yet sufficient for reliable analysis. That leaves 27 wide receivers from the first rounds of the 1997-2003 drafts. Of those 27 wideouts, 14 are out of the league entirely and nine are with franchises other than the ones that drafted them. Only four have appeared in multiple Pro Bowl games.

Indeed, at a position that demands precision in route running, the road is a crooked one, and it's littered with wide receiver flops such as Rae Carruth, Yatil Green, Marcus Nash, Peter Warrick, R. Jay Soward, Sylvester Morris, Freddie Mitchell, Koren Robinson, Rod Gardner and David Terrell.

"I mean, there are a lot of great wide receivers taken [in the first round]. But you look around the league, and you see it's not a must. I wasn't a first-round pick … and I've done pretty well for myself."
Steve Smith, Panthers wide receiver

In some cases, as with Green, who tore up his knee in consecutive training camps, or Morris, who suffered an essentially career-ending knee injury in his second year, the players were victimized by bad luck. In others, such as the notorious Carruth, no one could possibly have predicted the player would be convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. And with guys such as Robinson or Soward, well, character flaws proved too much to overcome.

But in the case of nearly every one of those first-round failures, there was a wide receiver taken in the second or third round of the same draft who was a superior player.

"It's definitely a position where you can get good, polished players outside the first round, guys who can come in and play for you right away," Martz said. "That's not to say you're not looking for special players in the first round. But teams don't have to reach for those guys, usually, because you'll find solid [receivers] later on."

But will you find a player of Calvin Johnson's ilk?

Since 1970, only two wide receivers, Irving Fryar of New England in 1984 and Keyshawn Johnson of the New York Jets in 1996, were chosen with the first overall selection. The two combined for nearly 1,700 catches and more than 23,000 yards, but neither is likely to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

Because of the rules changes that have opened up the passing game and turned ordinary receivers into players capable of snagging 60 balls per season, it's not necessary to have Hall of Fame-caliber players at the position. In the past 10 seasons, there have been 13 players who either led the league in catches by a wide receiver or tied for the lead. Seven of them were former first-round choices. But there were also players such as Joe Horn (fifth-round pick), Rod Smith (undrafted) and Jimmy Smith (second-round pick) in that group.

Of the top 10 wide receivers in 2006 in terms of catches, Furrey was an undrafted player and T.J. Houshmandzadeh of Cincinnati and Green Bay's Donald Driver were seventh-rounders.

"If you've got the skill and the will," Houshmandzadeh said, "where they draft you doesn't matter all that much. There are a lot of wide receivers in this league who are playing at a really high level but who weren't high-round picks."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.